The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Axum Obelisk in Rome

Author - John Mellors & Anne Parsons

The Axum Obelisk in Rome was removed from Ethiopia by the Italians in 1937, reportedly on the direct orders of Benito Mussolini. The obelisk they took was the second largest obelisk in Axum which had fallen over at some time in its history and had broken into five large pieces. After shipping the sections back to Italy the monument was restored and erected in the Circo Massimo. It has remained there ever since, despite frequent demands for its return to Ethiopia. The Italian government first agreed to send the monument back in 1947 but negotiations to secure its return are still continuing.

In May last year the obelisk was struck by lightning during a violent thunderstorm and suffered considerable damage to its top. Following this event the Italians have reportedly agreed to prepare the monument for shipment back to Ethiopia in 2003. We visited the monument during a short break in Rome this January to see if we could find what was happening to it. As can be seen from the photograph it is currently swathed in scaffolding and plastic sheeting and was obviously receiving attention as workers were present. The workers were very helpful and told us that they are still in the process of refitting the pieces that were broken off at the top by the lightning strike. They had had to remove the distinctive top section of the obelisk because the large brass pins holding it in place were loose and it was 'wobbly'.

We were shown a detailed drawing of the top of the monument to give us some idea of the full extent of the damage. They explained that most of the pieces that fell were actually new stonework fitted by the Italians in the thirties to repair the original obelisk. Only one large flake had fallen off the original stonework and, at that moment, they were in the process of fixing this section back in place. Once the monument has been completely repaired it will then be carefully dismantled before being shipped back to Ethiopia. The workers told us that they expected it to be dismantled before the summer.

It was very interesting to hear some of the tourist guides in the Palatine Hill (from where the Axum Obelisk can be seen in the distance) saying to their English flocks that the Romans really do seem to have every intention of shipping it back as soon as possible as ancient superstitions and the notion of lightning being an omen of bad luck still hold sway in the present day city!


Obelisk Updates:

Some months ago our News File editor, Anne Parsons, showed me some photographs she had taken while on holiday in Rome. They were of Aksum's missing Stele Number Two - taken home by the Italians after their 1936 occupation of Abyssinia and re-erected in the Piazza di Porta Capena.

Six years ago Italy had promised to return the stele to Aksum. One of Richard Pankhurst's books reports the return as a fact and the Ethiopian post office had issued a set of stamps to commemorate it. But the stele obstinately remained in Rome.

However, it was now swathed in scaffolding. As you will have read in the piece by John Mellors and Anne in the Spring News File the stele was struck by lightning, quite badly damaged at its topmost end and is now heavily scaffolded. After repairs it will be dismantled and shipped back to Ethiopia.

When I saw Anne's prints I was reading Major E.W. Polson Newman's 1938 book The New Abyssinia which describes a tour of the country he and his wife made at the invitation of the Italians. During their night drive from Massawa to Asmara he reported:

'As darkness fell and we ascended the winding road leading to the precipitous mountains, there was a commotion ahead with much shouting and swinging of lanterns and electric torches. The Carabinieri who held us up told us that some monoliths from Axum were just coming round the corner on their way to the Via dell'Impero in Rome. These huge masses of stone, possibly dating from the time of the Queen of Sheba, were not easy to transport over the mountain road, and it needed skill to manoeuvre them round the corners. They told us that in some places special bridges had to be built to carry the weight. The slow and creaking passage of these massive relics of almost unknown antiquity down that mountain road in the darkness was surely symbolic of the funeral of an Empire that had overstayed its time.'

The good major would perhaps have been surprised to find that the Empire was restored four years later and survived for a further 32, and even more astonished to learn that his 'massive relics' were slowly being readied, 66 years on, for their repatriation and reinstallation in the Aksum stele park.

Richard Snailham, Chairmanchat Summer 2003


Since writing our piece for the Spring News File we have found some very interesting sites on the internet, sadly most have now disappeared.

Some information (in Italian) and photographs on the restoration work is still available on the website of the Italian Ministry of Culture

John Mellors & Anne Parsons, Summer 2003


First Published in News File Spring 2003

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